One million soldiers, support staff, military personnel, contractors, and their families got impacted by the water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
On June 19, 2012, President Barack Obama signed an Executive order authorizing the Interagency Taskforce on Toxic Substances and Public Health to determine the consequences of drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
It came after the Agency for Toxic Substances, and Disease Registry (ATSDR) stated that people at Camp Lejeune who drank the water from the base faced an increased risk for various cancers.
It’s hard to imagine water contamination happening to military members and their families while living on a military base, never mind at such an enormous scale.
How did this happen? Read on to learn more about Camp Lejeune and how water contamination could have been prevented.
A Quick Look at Camp Lejeune
Camp Lejeune first came on the radar as a military base in the early 1940s. Its location in the New River area of North Carolina made it an ideal location to build a base.
As the base developed to present day, Camp Lejeune now holds the highest concentration of marines and sailors in the world. Areas of both Camp Lejeune and New River Air Station house marines.
Nearby you can also find sailors, aviators, and Coast Guard service members.
The base occupies an impressive 153,439 acres and features 14 miles of the Atlantic Coastline. To best understand the scope of what happened with the water, it’s good to understand the size of Camp Lejeune. It includes:
- 450 miles of roads
- 6,946 buildings and facilities
- 137,526 marines, sailors, retirees, families, and civilian employees
Whether you’re a marine with a long service record or new to the ranks and about to get sent abroad for the first time, you’ve likely spent some time at Camp Lejeune.
Camp Lejeune Water Contamination
Let’s start with a brief overview of how the water contamination happened at Camp Lejeune and how it impacted such a large number of people.
While construction started on the base in 1940, the base wasn’t operational until 1943. Contaminated water impacted soldiers, their families, and extended staff from that point until 1987, when the last of the contaminated wells got shut down.
There were eight different water treatment plants on the base to maintain such a high number of people living and working there. Of those treatment plants, three were responsible for delivering the tainted water.
The treatment plants weren’t responsible for the contamination, though. So, what caused the water contamination to be in the water supply? What could have prevented it from happening altogether?
Brief History of Camp Lejeune
While the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 is finally in place to provide some justice for those impacted by the water contamination, it was a long time coming for the many victims.
In fact, the federal government, some would say, was remarkably slow in acknowledging this event.
Most wonder what could lead to such a monumental failure. Not only how could this happen and get avoided, but have it also go unrecognized for so long?
It might be that the victims are finally getting an opportunity for justice. What happened to lead to this epic failure at Camp Lejeune?
1952: Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant
While the base began populating Marines in 1943, the Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant, one of the eight on the base, began providing water in 1952.
The Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant was built to provide water for the Tarawa Terrace part of the base, which held a large part of the population in base housing.
Within a few years of opening, Tarawa Terrace was distributing contaminated water. The water, once contaminated, was at dangerously high levels of contamination.
1953: Contamination Begins from Hadnot Point
Hadnot Point is another one of the water treatment plants at Camp Lejeune. It was built around the same time as the Tarawa Terrace facility. Of the three locations distributing toxic water, this location was the worst.
It’s said that by August of 1953, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported shockingly high levels of toxins in the Hadnot Point water.
While both Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point contamination started within a few years of each other, it’s not likely that the primary contamination came from the same source.
1953, the year that Hadnot Point contamination began, is significant because now it’s also the year that eligibility starts under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022.
1957: Tarawa Terrace Water System Contamination Begins
Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant was operational in 1953. By 1957, it was also distributing contaminated water.
The ATSDR believes, based on historical studies done on each of the water treatment facilities, that the water Tarawa Terrace supplied showed contamination in November 1957.
Military members and their families living at Tarawa Terrace, beginning at this time period, would feel the impact going forward. Again, this is the date that opens eligibility for the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022.
1972: Holcomb Boulevard Water System
For much of the period of contamination, Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point were responsible for it.
In 1972, the Holcomb Boulevard water treatment plant opened. For much of the time of its operation, it was fine. Unfortunately, Holcomb Boulevard provided water to Paradise Point, Midway Park, and Berkeley Manor, which were once serviced for water by Hadnot Point.
Because of this, when Holcomb Boulevard was built, it connected to Hadnot Point. Many times during its operation, water from Holcomb Boulevard supplemented from water at Hadnot Point, causing cross-contamination.
Several times during drought, Hadnot Point provided extra water to Holcomb Boulevard. Holcomb Boulevard was completely shut down for a while, and water came through from Hadnot Point.
1980-1982: Water Testing
As early as 1980 and 1981, the EPA standards required some testing on Camp Lejeune.
Historical data shows that water contamination was highly present during this time period. Despite this, the official response to this water testing was “other chemicals [that] interfered with results”.
While the EPA was looking for different chemicals, in 1982, the Marine Corps identified the chemicals that showed up in that water testing. It was trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene or PCE).
At this point, while the Marine Corps acknowledged the TCE and PCE in the water, their official stance on the chemicals was that they were at safe levels for the water.
Both Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point showed levels of TCE and PCE in the water.
1982-1984: What’s the Scope of Contamination at Camp Lejeune?
Despite their official stance in 1982 that the TCE and PCE levels were safe at Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point, the government recognized they had a more concerning water contamination problem.
From 1982 to 1984, they began investigating with more depth. They worked to identify what sites were showing contamination, what the contamination included, and what the source of that contamination was.
Interestingly, the US Navy was allocated with the task of researching the source and extent of the contamination.
They began the process of testing all nearby water wells in an attempt to get to the scope and source of the water contamination.
1985-1987:Contaminated Water Plants Shut Down
After extensive study and testing, the US government began shutting down the most toxic water wells in 1985. These would be the wells that supplied water to both Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point.
Unfortunately, contamination issues continued into 1987. Only the most contaminated wells were initially shut down. It took almost two years before all the wells showing signs of contamination were put out of commission.
By the end of 1987, the government reported that the water from all sources was safe. The end of 1987 is also significant for the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022.
December 31, 1987, ends the eligibility period for compensation under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022.
1999: Notifications of Health Risks
Often the US government got questioned about the fact that it took 17 years for them to acknowledge the contamination.
While they were aware for many years that the toxins existed in the water, it wasn’t until 1999, 17 years later, that they started to tell those impacted about it.
The notification began of former service members, residents, and their families that they likely got exposed to the contamination.
While the question has been asked of the government repeatedly over the span of these years, there’s never been an explanation for why it took so long to notify those impacted.
The first lawsuit connected to the water contamination was filed in 2009 by the wife of a service member who was ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). Her suit suggested her illness directly connected to her exposure to TCE, PCE, DCE, vinyl chloride, and benzene.
2012: Camp Lejeune Families Act Of 2012
While many veterans and their families were already feeling the effects from their exposure at Camp Lejeune, they struggled to get any benefits from the government.
In 2012, President Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.
This act would provide health care benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs if specific criteria were met under the act. Family members with illnesses could also get reimbursed for medical expenses under the act.
More on the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act to come.
2017: VA Benefits Claims Due to Exposure
In 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs began paying benefits to eligible veterans from water contamination. Over the next five years, Veterans Affairs accepted and paid out claims from the $2.2 billion fund made available to them.
During this time, they listed the presumptive illnesses connected to water contamination.
Many veterans who applied for benefits were denied and faced real struggles to get help. During this time, it became necessary for many impacted to seek legal help to get the help they needed.
How Did the Water Become Contaminated?
Looking at the timeline of events connected to Camp Lejeune water helps one to see the large expanse of time that the contamination took place. It helps to understand how over 1 million people were impacted.
What the history doesn’t show, though, was how the water actually got contaminated.
There were several culprits connected to the contamination. While it’s believed as many as 70 different contaminants were impacting the water, the main culprits were TCE and PCE.
The Tarawa Terrace wells primarily had contamination with perchloroethylene (PCE) which came from chemicals dumped into the ground from an off-base dry cleaner, ABC One-Hour Cleaners.
The Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant used water from contaminated wells for 346 months during November 1957-February 1987, connected to the dumped chemicals from the dry cleaners.
The Hadnot Point water treatment plant used water from wells contaminated primarily with tetrachloroethylene (TCE). The toxins came from various sources, including leaking underground storage tanks, industrial area spills, and waste disposal sites.
It’s worth noting that most of the TCE chemicals seeped into the water were from dumping done by the military on the base.
Once in the ground from each source, these chemicals seeped into the groundwater sourced by the wells. It’s also worth noting that each water treatment plant used multiple wells, and not all of them were contaminated.
Yet, all of the water coming out of those treatment plants was contaminated. Once water arrived at the treatment plant from a well, it was mixed with water from various wells.
Some of the water was clean yet mixed with the contaminated water.
How Could the Water Contamination Be Avoided?
How to avoid water contamination at Camp Lejeune is complex to address.
In the simplest terms, it could have been avoided if the dry cleaners and the military didn’t dump the contaminants. They were dumped or buried in the ground without fully recognizing the impact this could have.
It might even have been common practice to dump or bury the chemicals at the time. Yet, dumping anywhere near groundwater wells was foolish and key to the disaster.
Of course, groundwater delivered to the water treatment plants could have gone through regular safety testing. This would also not have been a common practice during this time period.
However, since much of the water in question was used in housing areas of the base, regular water testing makes sense.
Later on, one thing that could have significantly lessened the impact was to not mix the water at the treatment plants. Many of the wells for both Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point didn’t contain contamination.
But because the water from multiple sources was combined at the plant, the contamination spread throughout.
While it would not have stopped the contamination, its impact could have been reduced had the government acknowledged the problem more quickly and acted on it. They are culpable for their lack of action and its impact.
Water Supply Contamination and Who It Impacted
As previously mentioned, there were eight water treatment plants servicing water for Camp Lejeune. To better understand the impact, you need to look at the three water treatment plants that had contamination and where on the base their water was used.
Let’s take a closer look at the three water treatment plants and where their water was used on the base.
Tarawa Terrace operated from 1952 to March 19987. The primary pollutant was PCE which came from the ABC One-Hour Cleaners. When studying Tarawa Terrace, researchers have a wealth of sources to draw conclusions about this location. This research was from:
- Off-base dry cleaner
- On-base operations
- Operation of water-supply wells
- Water-treatment plants
- Water-monitoring data
- Groundwater flow
- Other relevant data
The PCE levels found in the Tarawa Terrace drinking water were 215 parts per billion. The legal limit for PCE is five parts per billion in drinking water.
Tarawa Terrace provided water for Tarawa Terrace family housing and the Knox trailer park.
The Hadnot Point water treatment plant was found to have a plethora of toxins from the contaminated well. The primary contaminant was trichloroethylene (TCE). Other contaminants at high levels included:
- PCE (perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene)
- DCE (trans-1,2-dichloroethylene)
- Vinyl chloride
Hadnot Point went into operation in 1942, and it wasn’t until 1985 that most of the contaminated wells got shut down.
The contaminated wells serviced Hadnot Point were believed to be impacted by the toxins from waste disposal sites and leaking underground storage tanks.
Water from Hadnot Point was used by the Mainside barracks, family housing at Midway Park, Paradise Point, Berkeley Manor, and Hospital Point family housing.
Keep in mind, the Holcomb Boulevard water treatment plant contributed to the problem only because of its shared water with Hadnot Point.
Holcomb Boulevard went into operation in 1972 and, over four years, received water with high levels of contamination from Hadnot Point.
Initially, researchers from the ATSDR didn’t include Holcomb Boulevard in their list of threats. It wasn’t until the connection about the shared water that this treatment facility got added to the list of culprits.
Holcomb Boulevard water system serviced family housing at:
- Midway Park
- Paradise Point
- Berkeley Manor
- Watkins Village
After 1987, when Tarawa Terrace wells got shut down, the Holcomb Boulevard water was then used for Tarawa Terrace family housing.
What Contaminants Were in the Water
In 1982, once the first contaminants were discovered at Camp Lejeune, more testing began to identify the details of the specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
As the studies increased on the water, more than 70 different chemicals were identified. Again, the source of most of these chemicals came from a dry cleaning solvent and a degreaser from leaking storage tanks.
The primary contaminants included:
- Vinyl Chloride
- Other Contaminants
Once identified, researchers began to realize the vast impact these chemicals would have on the population. Let’s take a closer look at each of the main VOCs.
Trichloroethylene (TCE) was the contaminant in the water at Hadnot Point at grossly toxic levels. These levels far exceeded the recommended and legal limits for safe use and consumption.
TCE is a volatile compound that’s both a colorless and liquid organic compound. This compound doesn’t occur naturally and happens after a chemical synthesis.
TCE gets commonly used as a degreasing solvent for metal equipment. Remember, the source at Camp Lejeune came from buried and leaking underground storage tanks and waste disposal sites.
One of the problems with TCE is that it breaks down slowly and stays present in the ground for a long time. The chemical can easily pass through soil and seep into area groundwater, which is precisely the scenario from Camp Lejeune.
Perchloroethylene (PCE) is also a colorless and liquid solvent. If present with PCE, you might notice it has a sweet, ether-like odor.
The PCE found in the water is commonly believed to have come from the chemicals dumped by the area dry cleaner. PCE is commonly used for dry-cleaning fabrics, degreasing metals, and as an industrial solvent.
Dry cleaners commonly use PCE because it effectively dissolves greases, oils, and waxes without damaging the fabric. So, you might wonder how it’s safe to wear dry-cleaned clothing.
PCE exposure for most people comes from the air at safe levels. People who wear dry-cleaned clothing may have a slightly higher exposure level, but it’s still believed to be at safe levels.
The problem with the PCE at Tarawa Terrace was two-fold. The PCE got ingested through drinking water, and the levels far exceeded safe levels for exposure.
Benzene was one of the chemicals found in larger quantities at Hadnot Point. It’s a colorless or light yellow liquid that won’t dissolve completely in water.
While benzene will dissolve in the air, it only dissolves slightly in the water and then sits on the water’s surface.
Benzene is a widespread chemical used in a variety of ways. These include:
- Nylon and synthetic fibers
The benzene in the Camp Lejeune water was believed to come from leaks from underground storage tanks or hazardous waste sites.
Like benzene, toluene is a colorless liquid that will dissolve in the air. Toluene is a chemical commonly used in:
- Oil refining
- Manufacturing paints and lacquers
- Explosives (TNT)
The toluene found at Camp Lejeune came from the degreasers used and then dumped at the base.
Toluene is a well-known cancer-causing agent, especially for lymphosarcoma, lymph leukemia, and Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Each of these cancers is now experienced by much of the population from Camp Lejeune during the time period in question. It is also connected to lung, breast, esophagus, stomach, colon, and rectum cancer.
Vinyl chloride is a chemical compound commonly found in the use of plastics.
Polyvinyl chloride is known to especially cause rare forms of liver cancer. Liver cancer is one of the listed illnesses by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
When learning about Camp Lejeune water contamination, it’s common to hear about TCE and PCE. Yet, remember, unsafe levels of dozens of chemicals were present once serious testing began on the water from Camp Lejeune.
These chemicals can be connected to various illnesses and other cancers not on the VAs presumptive list. It’s important to note that if you were at Camp Lejeune and are ill, you should seek benefits and compensation.
If Veteran Affairs has declined your benefits, that doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t still deserving of them. There were so many contaminants present, and the impact of those is sweeping.
Seek the assistance of an experienced attorney to help get you the benefits you deserve.
What Impact Did the Water Contamination Have on the Population?
The contaminated water has been shown to profoundly impact illness in those who lived and worked at Camp Lejeune. This includes military service members and their spouses, children, and civilians working on the base.
In February 2014, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report citing findings on the impacts of water contamination. Some of the results included:
- 35% higher risk of kidney cancer for Marines living and working at Camp Lejeune
- 42% higher risk of liver cancer for Marines living and working at Camp Lejeune
- 47% higher risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for Marines living and working at Camp Lejeune
- 50% higher risk for ALS for Marines living and working at Camp Lejeune
- 68% higher risk for multiple myeloma for Marines living and working at Camp Lejeune
Of course, this data doesn’t include the population beyond the Marines at the base during the dates in question. Yet, a large part of those impacted went beyond just service members.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022
There is important Camp Lejeune water act legislation working its way through Congress.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 under the Honoring Our PACT Act allows victims of the water contamination to file a suit and seek compensation from the federal government.
Anyone, active military, veterans, civilians, and their families who lived at or worked on the Camp Lejeune base for a minimum of 30 days between 1953 and 1987 may be eligible for a claim.
As part of your claim, you can request compensation for:
- Medical bills
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
- Disability benefits
- Permanent disability
- Loss of companionship, consortium, enjoyment of life, and earning capacity
The legislation does put a cap on the amount of time you’ll have to make a claim. It is extremely important that you hire an attorney to file your claim and preserve your case. You should seek the help of an attorney right away if you think that you may have a claim under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022.
Understanding the Impact of Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune
The water contamination at Camp Lejeune is a horrible mark in history for this military base. The impact of more than one million people being exposed to dangerous levels of toxins will be felt for years.
If you or a loved one was at Camp Lejeune, you need legal help to organize and be a part of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022. We have the experience to help you get justice. Contact our legal team to discuss your case today.